Jaimie Green sits in front of a bank of six computer monitors at the Grays Harbor Communications Center — the hub for 911 calls for the entire county — as she has for the past 18 years. The phone rings. The caller reports he just saw two alligators on an island on the south end of Duck Lake in Ocean Shores.
Green gets the caller’s name, phone number and location of the sighting. She moves the call along to a another dispatcher in the room. That dispatcher is working law enforcement for the county outside of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis. The second dispatcher notifies Ocean Shores animal control and the call ends.
There are four people working the weekday afternoon shift. Green takes the calls, the other three dispatch to either Aberdeen, Hoquiam or Cosmopolis law enforcement; law enforcement in the rest of the county; or fire and emergency medical services countywide.
The call center is set up for 20 full-time dispatchers, working four 10-hour shifts. Currently, there are 12, with one additional floater who works a couple hours a week. Because of the shortage of dispatchers, there’s a lot of overtime and, occasionally, as few as two dispatchers on any given shift.
The job pays well, started at about $20 an hour, which wasn’t always the case.
“We have worked on bringing up the wages and benefits because for a long time our center was at the bottom of the state in comparables,” said Hoquiam Police Chief Jeff Myers, a member of the center’s operating board.
The nature of the job itself, and the intensive background check that goes with it, can make it difficult to find and retain qualified candidates.
“People are just not wanting to work shift work,” said call center executive director Brenda Cantu. “We are open 24/7, 365 days a year. We work on Christmas and on your birthday and your kids’ birthdays. It’s difficult to find applicants for a job where that is a requirement and not ever going to change.”
Green is married to a law enforcement officer. Both do shift work, and are raising two young boys. She said fellow dispatchers are always willing to juggle shifts to make sure important life events — weddings, graduations and the like — are not missed.
Multitasking, to the extreme
“It is a difficult job to do,” said Cantu. “You’re working with six screens, four different keyboards, a couple of mice, two foot pedals, you’re constantly multitasking, on the phone or radio, entering things into the computer, paying attention to what is going on the room and always being ready for the next thing coming up. A lot of people are not able to do that.”
Cantu asks candidates if, when they are focused on a television show, can they also focus on other things in the room? Can they carry on a conversation, play with their phones, and remember everything that’s happening at once?
“A person who focuses on just one thing at a time is not going to be successful. It takes someone who can tell you all aspects of everything that’s happening,” said Cantu.
Green is explaining the 911 call process when another call comes in. She stops mid-sentence, fields the call, then returns mid-sentence to her explanation. She, like the other dispatchers, is aware of everything around her, from casual conversation to who needs to be covered for a break to the incoming calls. Not only are they aware, they seem to instinctively be able to process everything at once.
Application requirements can also dissuade people from applying in the first place. At first glance, the minimum requirements are pretty reasonable for a job that starts at $20 an hour: a high school diploma or GED, 18 years old with a valid driver’s license, type 40 words per minute and be a citizen of the United States.
Then there’s the background check. No felony convictions, and no misdemeanor convictions for controlled substance or physical harm. You have to pass a polygraph, medical and psychological evaluations, along with vision, hearing and controlled substance exams.
“The biggest challenge has been finding qualified candidates who can pass the background check who want to work in a heavily technical, fast-paced environment of working days, nights, weekends and holidays,” said Myers.
On the application is a drug disqualification table. If you have used any illegal drug — and that includes marijuana, legal in the state but not federally — in the last year, you’re out. Seldom or occasional use of marijuana — defined as once a week max — between 1 and 3 years ago and you’ll be considered. Any other drug, you’re disqualified. The table lists what levels of past drug use will be considered on a case to case basis, and which others immediately disqualify a candidate.
If an applicant gets through all that, there’s 6-8 months of training, when some candidates wash out once they see what the job is all about.
“We hire great people, but unfortunately some come in and the reality hits,” said Cantu. “They think they can handle stress well and hearing difficult calls isn’t going to bother them, then they come in and listen to someone in a horrible situation” and decide the job isn’t for them.
“All of us dispatchers, we all have voices that stay with us our entire lives,” said Cantu. “Either a call where a person is saying their dying words, or someone who found their loved one deceased, or the sobbing parent who just lost their child. That’s hard to deal with and move on to the next call. Those voices stay with you and that’s the tough part of this job.”
Green’s most current voice came Memorial Day Weekend of 2017.
“The most recent one was the vehicular manslaughter (case) on Donkey Creek,” she recalled.
In that incident, a party on a gravel bar turned deadly when a confrontation led to two young men being struck by a truck. One of those young men eventually died from his injuries. Green was on the phone for more than 20 minutes, trying to decipher what was happening on a choppy cell phone call from a remote location and providing information to the victims’ friends as they attempted to keep the victims alive until help could arrive.
“You don’t realize the things you will hear,” said Green. The confusion and fear in the voices on the phone as she did her best to direct aid to the victims’ location, gave emergency medical instructions to the caller, and provided the suspect vehicle description to law enforcement officers.
There will be days on the job where a dispatcher may be able to save a life, whether it’s pinpointing the location of a confused person in distress or offering emergency medical procedures that can save a life. Green said it’s a very rewarding job, and in reality, the most stressful calls “are few and far between.”
“We have the best responders anywhere. They are great to work with. I love the team we have in this county,” said Cantu. “They are the first of the first responders.”
Green said in a stressful situation like the Donkey Creek call, as with all others, from the surreal to the mundane, to get her through the rougher days, she relies on the lengthy and thorough training she has gone through, and the support of her fellow dispatchers, along with the knowledge that, no matter the outcome, she did the absolute best she could do.
“We all check in with each other,” she said, all offering to lend an experienced ear to a fellow dispatcher who has just done everything within their ability to help a caller who has gone through a traumatic experience.
Joining the team
A full application package, including required tests and specific requirements, can be found online at gh911.org.